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Oct 30 2011

Four Questions, Four Answers (No Jesus Necessary)

Some of my readers may not know Callan Bentley. This is a shame, because he’s a brilliant geologist, a fantastic teacher, and one of the two people who makes me seriously consider moving to Virginia in order to attend college. If you knew how I felt about passive margins, you’d know why this is a big deal.

While Callan tends to focus on geology, he occasionally takes off after politics, pseudoscience, and religion. He’s not afraid to be honest. And that honesty extends to people he respects. People like Bill Hooke, who is a scientist blogging about climate policy, a Christian man who has four questions he thinks only Jesus can answer.

Today, Bill wrote a post entitled “Environmental scientists as Christians.” In it, he describes his own Christianity and how there is only a little overlap between “Church Bill” and “Work Bill.” My long-time readers will know that I do not subscribe to any religious ideology. I find religion superfluous to the reality that I find around me on a daily basis: it’s what a philosopher would call “philosophical naturalism” (as opposed to science, which operates under “methodological naturalism,” which doesn’t necessarily preclude the possibility of supernatural beings; it just can’t detect them). So it really struck to me to read Bill’s ruminations on that topic. This is a gentleman and a scholar, and he apparently has given a lot of thought to these issues.

In the post, he “quotes” (paraphrasing from memory) the evangelical preacher Billy Graham, who says

There are four reasons we need Jesus… four questions we can’t answer without Him.

1. Does my life matter? Is it possible for my life to have meaning?

2. How can I handle my loneliness, the loneliness I feel even in a crowd, or even (or perhaps especially) when with people who are close to me?

3. How can I bear my crushing burden of guilt? And by that I don’t mean as measured by some external standard such as the Ten Commandments, but rather my own judgment of myself…that I have fallen short of my potential.

4. What happens to me after I die?

Callan answered them handily, no Jesus required. I shall do the same. And I don’t know if Bill will ever read either post. If he does, I don’t know if anything will go *click*. But I hope it does, because I find it tragic that a brilliant man can’t imagine answers without Jesus.

Here we go.

1. Does my life matter? Is it possible for my life to have meaning?

Yes.

Suppose I should expand on that a bit. My life matters intensely. It matters to my family, more than I expect sometimes. I got reminded of that one memorable Christmas, just after I moved up here, when I’d forgotten about the time difference between Arizona and Washington and my stepmother called because I hadn’t yet called them and my dad was not only worrying, but missing me fiercely. He’s not a sentimental man, and he’s not prone to panic, but there we were: I was an hour late calling on Christmas day, and he was so torn between letting me live my life without him clinging to it and freaking out because it was his first Christmas without me and he was terrified something may be wrong that my stepmother had to step in and sort the situation out. My life matters to them, and to my mother, and to my friends, and my readers, and certainly to my cat.

My life has meaning. I used to think it didn’t. There was a long time, when I was losing my religion, that I couldn’t see the point of it, and that bothered me. I felt I had to justify my existence. And if I wasn’t justified by some god or other, then what? Meaningless. Waste of resources. Right?

Then I discovered that meaning isn’t something imposed from without. It comes from within. What meaning did I want my life to have? What was the point of me? That’s when I got serious about becoming a master wordsmith, because good writing has inspired and challenged me and carried me through some very dark times. Words matter. I’m good with words. And there’s no god or goddess who can give me the boon of immortal words. It’s just me, the excellent writers I’ve learned from, and devoting myself to telling the story.

I got involved with making this world a better place, because it’s all we’ve got, and we’ve got to take care of each other because there’s no one else.

I’ve not worried about meaning since. Meaning: I haz it. And it’s far more stable than it ever was when it was supposedly God who gave me meaning. The universe doesn’t give two shits whether I exist or not, and I don’t need it to. Got all the matter and meaning I need right here, thank you ever so much. Bonus, it means I actually do something with my life rather than rest on the laurels supposedly bestowed upon me by some god. Nice goad to ye old ambitions, that!

2. How can I handle my loneliness, the loneliness I feel even in a crowd, or even (or perhaps especially) when with people who are close to me?

I thrive on that loneliness, actually. I’m a writer. Writers work in solitude (well, most do). Writers work with solitude. It’s not often a problem, and the few times I’ve gotten all mopey about being lonely, I’ve quickly gotten distracted by lots of interesting things and forgotten all about it. Besides, a writer is never actually alone. There’s always a character around to pester. Although it’s usually them doing the pestering….

I’m afraid those looking for non-writer ways of dealing with that loneliness will have to turn to Callan and others.

3. How can I bear my crushing burden of guilt? And by that I don’t mean as measured by some external standard such as the Ten Commandments, but rather my own judgment of myself…that I have fallen short of my potential.

I can see the scars of Christianity in this. Always being told we’re not worthy, always being told we’re worthless sinners undeserving of love, always being told we’re never good enough. And it’s awful.

Here’s the thing: falling short of your potential isn’t the problem. Never striving is. Are you giving it the old college try? Yeah? Then you’re good. You’re a little bit of all right. You don’t have to be superhuman, just human, and being human means we don’t always reach our full potential. That’s okay. It happens.

This phrase is what gets me through those times when I’m beating myself up over my own (perceived) failures: quantum in me fuit. Loosely translates as “I did the best I could.” I hated myself for not being a child prodigy. Then I decided that self-loathing wasn’t going to rescue the situation and took a more realistic look at what I could accomplish with my life. Yes, I’m going to fall short of what I thought my potential should be. But I’ve got quite a lot I can be justifiably proud of, I’ve done the best I could and continue doing that, and even if I fail utterly, the journey’s been quite a reward.

The guilt’s been reduced to an impotent little squeak, just enough to be a useful goad, not enough to crush. And I’ve fulfilled much more of my potential since I quit beating myself to death with guilt.

All Jesus ever did was made me feel guilty. That question couldn’t even be answered when I believed in him. I just didn’t realize it at the time.

4. What happens to me after I die?

There will be no “me,” and no self there to realize that “me” is over.

“I” will cease to be. My atoms will get recycled. My consciousness will no longer exist.

That, I do have to say, used to terrify me. All of the things I wouldn’t have had a chance to do or know or see, all the people I’d never see again, if there was no heaven, no afterlife. And this life, what a joke! The afterlife had to be sooo much better. I needed it to be.

When I lost my religion, I spent a little bit of time horrified by death. Didn’t want to think about it. Awful. But I’m human, and I know that this life of mine is fragile and finite, and I can’t help but think about it.

And one day, as I was obsessing over the impending end of my life, and fearing that I wouldn’t get done the things I felt I needed to do before I died, and paralyzing myself with fear, something went *click*. Because I realized: death is the end. I’ll never know all the things I wanted to know, do all the things I wanted to do, see all the things I wanted to see, but I won’t know about it. Where’s the problem, then? What is there to fear, when there won’t be a mind left to regret?

This is probably the closest I’ve ever come to Zen. It’s allowed me to live more in the moment. Oh, I still have plans and ambitions and plenty of stuff to do before that end. I want to fill my days with awesome, as much as possible, because time is short and life is precious. I want to leave something behind when I go that people will enjoy. It would be nice to be remembered long after all those who knew me are dust. But immortality in any form isn’t necessary anymore. I haven’t felt any need for it in some time.

It’s hard to explain. When you believe in an afterlife, you’re desperate for that afterlife, and live in abject fear of getting it wrong. Strangely, many people who believe they will go to a place filled with rainbows and unicorns after they die are far more terrified of death than those of us who believe it’s just over. Maybe it’s because they suspect some god or other will tell them U DID IT RONG when they perish, and bung into the fires they’ll go.

I’m at peace with the end of me. It doesn’t make me maudlin or nihilistic to believe death is final, and that there is no eternity for my identity. It just makes me determined to enjoy this one spin on the wheel I’ve got.

See? Four answers, no Jesus necessary. I know it doesn’t seem that way for Christians. It didn’t seem that way to me, long ago, when I used to haul a Bible around. Indeed, I was taught that any answers that did not have Jesus in them were invalid. You’re not even allowed to imagine there could be answers that haven’t got Jesus in them.

But there are. And you can find them.

7 comments

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  1. 1
    Larry Ayers

    I’ve followed a similar path. Well-written analysis!

  2. 2
    kraut

    Well, the answers are just a little long.

    1. My live has meaning for myself and my family/friends by being myself, helping them in need, enjoying their company, living my live and fulfilling my duties I have engaged in, be it at personal or business relations.

    2.I do not have a problem with loneiness, sometimes the problem is not being alone enough.

    3.I do not feel guilt. I try to do my best under all circumstances, but I sometimes procrastinate. Knowing my strength and weaknesses I have come to terms with myself and who I am.

    4. We die, our atoms get recycled – what is the problem?
    I do not feel the necessity to live forever, let there be silence after the struggle to live life according to ones personality – and especially after the struggle against it, if that was not possible.

  3. 3
    Tisha Irwin

    Two of these questions just stink of religious nonsense to me.

    Does life have meaning? Why do you think it must? What is the source of this obsession with “meaning”? What does “meaning” mean? Of all of the billions of people who have lived before you, how many do you think had “meaning”? There are probably just a few thousand people in the entire history of people whose lives have been “meaningful”, in the sense that they changed the course of history, so the chance that yours is one of them is ridiculously small. Get over it.

    The crushing sense of guilt…I had to laugh at that one. If you want to deal with your crushing sense of guilt, dispose of the source of it: religion. I have only a few things that I feel truly guilty about. I think it’s good to remember them so I don’t repeat the same mistakes. But they’re by no means crushing. Unless you’re a murderer, or a rapist, or a child molester, or you’ve stolen money from thousands and thousands of people who are now destitute because of your actions, you probably shouldn’t feel crushing guilt about anything.

    Asking how to deal with loneliness is like asking how to deal with a headache. Most of the time it will go away on its own accord. If it doesn’t, or if it’s really, really bad, you probably need medical attention.

    What will happen when I die I think is an interesting question because it’s one of the big sources of religious nonsense. It’s so hard for most people to think in such abstract terms as what it will be like when they no longer exist. They had to make up a nice answer for it.

  4. 4
    martha

    Dana,

    Want to print that up in a little pamphlet that we can slip into people’s doors and hand out at parades?

  5. 5
    se habla espol

    1. Does my life matter? Is it possible for my life to have meaning?

    To the extent that I have loved those whom I love, helped those whom I could, been a good example to my kids, grandkids, coworkers, clients, … Yes, my life matters. It may even matter after it’s done, but that’s not my call — it depends on the memories of whoever might decide that I was memorable.

    2. How can I handle my loneliness, the loneliness I feel even in a crowd, or even (or perhaps especially) when with people who are close to me?

    What loneliness? Whenever loneliness has threatened, I retreat into my imagination and create something. The difference between my tactic and Graham’s is that I recognize it’s imagination, where Graham thinks that his fantasy is real.

    3. How can I bear my crushing burden of guilt? And by that I don’t mean as measured by some external standard such as the Ten Commandments, but rather my own judgment of myself…that I have fallen short of my potential.

    I don’t have a “crushing burden of guilt” — whenever I injure someone or something, I fix it the best as I can as soon as I can. I also recognize that I have done the best I could at the time and place — the illusion of unfulfilled potential is not a guilt-inducing concept.

    4. What happens to me after I die?

    Turn out the lights, the party’s over. I’ll get parted out, so that some others may benefit from any parts that are still useful; and whatever’s left will be incinerated and/or buried, depending on what the new owner of my remains decides.

  6. 6
    andrea

    wow, it is very sad to see an adult come up with such pathetic questions based on why he beleives in this god. My observations (as a former Christian) on what Christians really mean with these “questions” 1.”I’m so soo very important that an omnipotent/omniscient/ omnibenevolent being is so concerned with me-me-me, that it “gives” me a reason for my life. 2. “I need to make up such a being so I feel better when I am not the center of attention”. 3. “I have a magic “potential” that I’ve made up but when my delusions aren’t true, then I can feel bad about myself”. 4. “I’m so important tht the universe can’t get on without me”.

    yeeesh.

  7. 7
    Mr Z

    1. Does my life matter? Is it possible for my life to have meaning?

    Personally, I feel that this question can only be asked by someone who desperately seeks existential understanding. Magic books and ghosts are not the place to seek an answer. Meaning is a subjective term so when it is asked, the context is very important. I have written already about meaning in life and it is derived from what you personally ascribe to your life and what others ascribe to your life. If you or anyone ascribes value to any action you take or if you derive pleasure or satisfaction from any of your experiences then your life has meaning. Perhaps this is not the grand self-centered meaning you seek, but it is meaning. Who is it exactly that told you that there is meaning? If it’s the same people telling you how to live you need to run away from them as fast as you can. That is the oldest scam on the books.

    2. How can I handle my loneliness, the loneliness I feel even in a crowd, or even (or perhaps especially) when with people who are close to me?

    Really? It is not that hard, or at least the answer is not complex. Loneliness is a lack, a feeling of loss. You simply need more self confidence. Yes, that was the simple explanation. The trouble is that it doesn’t get get any easier to explain. Your loneliness is not someone else’s problem. Those other people have it too. If you feel that you cannot deal with it dig inside yourself and ask why. Quit asking for an explanation and starting asking yourself WHY you feel lonely. As my grandparents were fond of saying, no one ever told you that life is fair… so get over it. Quit asking someone else to explain your self indulgent pains. There is nothing new under the sun and all that. You are NOT the only one feeling lonely. Get over it and start focusing on the next adventure instead of why nobody seems to love you. Get out of your bubble; get out of your paradigm; get out of your self pity. Quit asking me to validate your selfishness.

    3. How can I bear my crushing burden of guilt? And by that I don’t mean as measured by some external standard such as the Ten Commandments, but rather my own judgment of myself… that I have fallen short of my potential.

    Seriously? This is your own doing. Guilt you must have had piled on you by some nefarious outside source. Such guilt is NOT natural. It is against human nature. When you feel guilty, apologize and make amends. If that is not possible, forget it, move on and vow not to do so again. The instant that you need someone else’s approval to feel good about your life … well, that is the instant that you are doing it wrong.

    4. What happens to me after I die?

    Nobody knows for certain because … well, they are dead. There are no guarantees and no evidence of what happens. None. Quit worrying about it, really. No matter what happens when you die you still have to live this life. Forget the day after you die and start thinking about today. If you want to live in fear, go ahead. I don’t advise it. You should live each moment as if it were your last; each moment as if it were the one that would give meaning to your life. If you want crushing guilt, feel it because you wasted it worrying about what an invisible skydaddy is supposed to want for your life even though he is supposed to have known all along what you would do from the beginning of time. Other than that, exercise your free will and live life. Each day is an experience… enjoy them all in some way. It gives meaning to life. Who knows, maybe you’ll meet someone who thinks their life could not be complete without having known you. Then you’ll know meaning. There is no reason to worry about what happens after. You should be ultra-busy worrying about what happens now, what happens next. anything about after death is just wasteful.

  1. 8
    Four Questions, Four Answers (No Superstition Needed) « myatheistlife

    [...] Questions, Four Answers (No Superstition Needed) Over at En Tequila Es Verdad is a post about a guy who thinks he has four questions that only a deity can answer. Pasted here [...]

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